a smart approach to soil care and compost, with annie novak

DO I NEED a soil test? And what kind of amendments should I be adding to my vegetable beds or containers to get things off to a good start? And how can I fine tune my composting this year to optimize results? Those are some of the timely questions I covered with Annie Novak, manager of the Edible Academy at the New York Botanical Garden.

In a world where we often focus on what product we can add, as if there is an instant solution, Annie says this: “If you take a step back and think about how the natural world works without your influence, and then as many lessons as you can derive from that toward your own practices in your garden, you’re going to be a much better gardener.”

Less is often more.

Annie is also founder and director of Growing Chefs, a field-to-fork food education program, and co-founder of Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Plus, she wrote “The Rooftop Growing Guide” (affiliate link).

Annie will be one of the expert presenters at the upcoming Workshop Experience Weekend, May 7th and 8th, in the Hudson Valley of New York that I’m helping organize.

Read along as you listen to the April 4, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

(Photo of Annie, below, from Uniqlo; top photo by Jackie Snow.)

caring for soil and making compost, with annie novak



Margaret: Before we get started, Annie, I know you’re going to give two classes on May 7th, near where I am in Columbia County, New York, as part of The Workshop Experience Weekend. And we’re having nature and cooking and crafts and mushroom growing, and you name it, all at theworkshopexperience.org.

So you’re giving two classes, one on what we’re talking about today, understanding soils and composting, and the other is about…

Annie: [Laughter.] Nocturnal bird migration.

Margaret: Oh, yin-yang. That’s the yin-yang of composting [laughter].

Annie: Yeah. I mean, I think the natural connection between the two is I personally am interested in both of them. But more generally speaking, I think, as I became a better and better gardener, I became more and more curious about the birds in our garden, and how they interact with that space. And then, the more you learn about birds and bird migration, which is itself its own fascinating study, birds that migrate at night, and how we, as people normally asleep during that time, can study them is just infinitely fascinating—particularly because the technology to study it has evolved so much in the last couple decades.

Margaret: It really has. And it is fascinating what researchers are learning and what they’re doing with the data that they’re getting by tracking them.

Annie: Yeah. Yeah. I mean there are a number of different ways I would say… The most easily accessible to the layperson is a better understanding of how to use radar technology. Which isn’t to say you have your own radar station, but just that there are many platforms where you can watch radar movement, and being able to see birds move during spring and fall migration here in the Northeast, or North America generally, is just incredible. It’s like illustratively beautiful.

And it’s also, in terms of applications as you mentioned, having an understanding of when, how, where birds are moving at night gives us, as people, better ways to interact with them, as they fly and once they land.

So everything from being able to read the populations as they increase in the fall—as fledglings are coming over from, let’s say, Canada into Northeast, you can see that,. The radar cloud gets bigger. Or let’s say you want to turn lights off at night in a city area to help birds migrate better, you can see what nights birds are migrating by watching them real time on radar. So it’s really neat, and it’s kind of astonishing how accessible it is.

Margaret: Well, I hope when you’re here in May, to do your presentations, that you’ll come visit the garden, where I’m lucky that about 70 species of birds usually visit each year, so it’s kind of fun. And maybe you’ll say hello to some of them [laughter].

Annie: That’s incredible. And I have to say, Margaret, that real is testimony to how good of a gardener you are. I mean, it’s not natural that birds would visit any old garden. You really have to know the right plant for the right place to get those birds to come. So, 70 is an impressive number.

Margaret: As we say, we have to grow a lot of bugs to get a lot of birds, right?

Annie: [Laughter.] True, true words.

Margaret: Look, my last name is Roach. I grow bugs. What can I say [laughter]?

So down to the point of today’s conversation, now that we’ve derailed onto one of our mutually favorite subjects…

Maybe this sounds familiar, around this time of year, people are starting their cleanup and their garden prep. And I get a lot of emails and a lot of questions, and they’re telling me all the materials they’re about to turn into their soil and all these bags of things they bought, and they’re going to “improve” their soil.

And what I usually infer from these messages is there’s a whole lot of guesswork going on. So when you’re teaching soil prep and getting started in the spring and so forth, are there preliminary steps that we need to take to get insight, before we just go buying $100 worth of stuff and dumping it into the garden? Yeah.

Annie: Yeah. Oh my gosh, no, it’s so fascinating me. And you can relate this too to the experience I’ve had working at the Edible Academy in New York Botanical Garden [above, NYBG photo], talking to people about food and food health. We over, again, decades looking back into like the late 1800s forward, we’ve really fallen in love with add-ons, with labels and secret tricks. It’s a very human characteristic. I don’t have any problem with it per se.

But, particularly in the world of gardening and thinking about your garden as a space where biology happens and chemistry happens, and some of these really incredible sciences, it should be under-complicated. I mean, if you take a step back and think about how the natural world works without your influence, and then as many lessons as you can derive from that towards your own practices in your garden, you’re going to be a much better gardener.

So a lot of the way I think about soil amendments and improving my soils has to do with the experiences I’ve had being in open natural spaces. I might take a walk in the Thain Family Forest at the botanical garden, and kind of look for where I see decomposition happening—or look for areas where I see really high quality soil developing and then try to apply those practices to my own space.

So to your point about your 70-bird garden, which I’m going to keep gold-starring as we go, it’s really incredible, is that there’s a strong chance that as you’re doing your garden cleanup, you’re thinking about things like, “How can I remove plants that have viral pathogens or fungus problems or anything that might be detrimental to my vegetable garden?” But by and large, how can you also leave things in place so that whatever hard-mineral nutrients—your calcium your boron, your manganese—whatever was in the plant as it grew, and you harvested, let’s say, the tomato that you ate, the fruit, how can you take the rest of that and put it back into the soil, so that the soils getting a chance to reinvest those mineral nutrients, for example?

So, one of the add-ons that really kills me are these hydrophilic water absorption things.

Margaret: Oh, I know. Oh.

Annie: What is that. I mean, if you can’t create a good, healthy soil with a good organic matter matrix to absorb water, that’s where I would start. Not with the goofy little blue snot balls that are supposedly helping you out [laughter].

Margaret: That’s a very nice description, miss [laughter]. But it’s true. It’s true. It’s just not better living through chemistry, folks. So what can we do with the raw materials, as you pointed out as in the forest floor—how can we simulate that sort of natural process?

And of course, composting is a really important part. We’re going to talk about that in a minute. But should we have a soil test? And if so, how often? I have to say, in 35 years in my space, in my vegetable beds and elsewhere, I’ve probably done soil tests once or twice maybe at the most. And it was when there was a problem.

Generally speaking, if everything seems to be growing well and performing normally, to my estimation, I don’t. But what do you think about that? Is soil testing one of the things… I think that’s one of the things you’re going to teach at the class in May.

Annie: Yeah. Well, here, let me ask you this. When you did your soil test, what type of test did you run and what were you specifically looking for?

Margaret: The first time, early on in my time here, I wanted to know the pH, I think. I wanted to know kind of generally, because I moved from a different area of the state to this area. And I think that was my first thing.

And then I think there was one… One time, it had to do with the death of a woody plant, an older woody plant, and it was suspicious. There were no previous signs. It was almost like a pathology report. You know what I mean? It was soil as well as root material and other material from the plant. And it was really a pathology thing, looking for something, so that wasn’t quite a soil test. It was a little bit different.

Annie: Yeah. But I really appreciate the way you’re framing this, because I think what you’re explaining is sort of the two right reasons to do any kind of a test whatsoever.

And what I would say is that, soil can be talked about from a number of different perspectives. In your case, when you’re moving from one area to another, whether it’s county or country, or wet to dry within a neighborhood, that’s a great reason to do a number of soil tests.

I mean, I would start with exactly what you did, a pH test, because pH tells you so much about the accessibility of different nutrients. And then also, you can start to categorize what plants you may or may not be able to grow, given their preferences for pH, right? So if I was to move to New Jersey, I could probably become a blueberry farmer pretty quickly, with their slightly more acid soils, whereas here in New York, it’s a harder plant for me. So it’s a great place to start.

But I would say that the soil tests that make me raise, it might be more complicated. If you send a soil sample out to a cooperative extension—here locally, we use Cornell a lot, they’re going to send you back… And this is what I was curious, if you had done. They’re going to send you back what feels like a chemistry report of all sorts of different things, which can be very, very useful, if you know what you’re reading and how to look for it, and 2, if you took the test at the right time.

And what I mean by that is I think where people fall into a trap with soil testing is if you start out in the spring and dig up a sample of your soil while it’s still cold, you’re going to get different results than you might mid-season or late-season, simply because the soil is a living space. And a lot of those mineral nutrients might be more accessible or readable as they move through the soil, because of the decomposers and other microbes that are pushing them around, than they would be if you did it in the offseason.

So just to take a giant step back, I would say the tests that seem most useful to me is to understand how well your soil drains, which is definitely something I plan on workshopping in May—the composition generally in terms of its balance of particulates, like sand, silt, and clay. Just again, to give you kind of a sense of how water moves, how air moves, what plants might be happy in that space, and then really broadly speaking what the mineral nutrients and organic add content are, which I would likely recommend a pH test, like you did, before I did anything else, like a heavy metals test or a mineral-nutrients test.

But so much of it is just experience, right? One of my favorite ways to understand soil is just to grow a wide range of crops, and then to take note of which plants or which plant families tend to do well or not do well.

And as long as that’s not because of sun exposure or any of the other factors in a garden, I can usually figure out, “Oh, it might have something to do with the soil composition in a certain area.” And that’s kind of fun. It’s kind of like getting a postcard from your nonverbal plants [laughter].

Margaret: For the pH test, can I use a home test or I have to send it to a lab?

Annie: Home tests are perfectly fine. I mean, it’s, for the most part, a broad-strokes idea of what’s going on is good enough.

Margaret: O.K. So again, I’m a longtime organic gardener. I’m pretty much not someone who buys a lot of bags of anything—and frankly, I don’t even really often use fertilizers. I’m a compost, compost, compost kind of a person, you know [laughter]?

Annie: Mm-hmm.

Margaret: So it’s like I’m recycling all the organic matter I have, and then I’m topdressing my vegetable beds, after clean up in the fall and after harvesting things. It’s like that’s been my sort of passive way to hopefully make sure the soil has what it needs, the right tilth, as I would say, and drainage and all these good things, water-holding capacity.

So organic matter, people write to me again around this time of year, and they’re like, “Ooh, I have all these leaves on the ground. Can I just turn them into my vegetable beds?”

And it’s like, what is the organic matter? And in what condition is the organic matter that we should consider using, either if we’re growing vegetables in big containers, or in raised beds or open garden beds? What are good amendments, so to speak, and not purchased amendments, but more natural amendments? [Above, the Edible Academy vegetable beds; NYBG photo.]

Annie: Yeah. I guess there’s two scales to answer that question. There’s sort of the USDA level, American soils composition and how we amend them. And then there’s the home gardener. I’ll take this from the home-gardening perspective.

Margaret: Yes, definitely. Yeah.

Annie: [Laughter.] Yeah. I mean, I guess going back to my earlier point about mineral nutrients, if you are a vegetable garden, this will be a slightly different answer than if you are a home grower with perennial ornamental shrubs, etc.

For perennial plants, to start with that, because it’s slightly easier, again referring to what is the natural world doing, generally speaking, if they’re deciduous, if they’re losing leaves or shedding plant material, that material staying on the ground underneath the plant is already a fantastic natural amendment. And you don’t have to do much. I mean, with perennials, you don’t want to turn anything in as much as you can help it, unless the soil’s in need of aeration.

With the vegetable growing. I think your approach sounds great. And in terms of the list of what to add or not to add, gosh, it’s a little too articulated to summarize, but I would say basically a good way to think about it is, if you have something that has an obvious fungal disease, tomatoes are a classic example, I would exempt that from your composting pile.

So if you’re removing something, because it is a Cucurbitaceae and it has powdery mildew, I wouldn’t necessarily compost that, because a lot of those spores can outlive usually the balmier temperatures of a home compost pile than a standard industrial pile, which might be upwards of 160 degrees. So I would avoid diseased plant tissue.

Food scraps from your home, your cooking, are totally O.K. I’m the first person to add cooking oils and bones and all the things people say not to. I add them, but is in part because I keep my compost pile running really hot. I try and keep it above 130 degrees, when it’s fully processing, if not 160.

And then in terms of the browns, like your leaf litter and whatever, yeah, absolutely. Again, just be aware of the pace at which things are breaking down. Leaf litter from deciduous Northeastern trees take a long time to break down. You might see an oak leaf sitting in your pile for weeks, if not months, if not years longer than your avocado fleshy pit or whatever.

So yeah, but other than that, I don’t know that there’s a short way to list what’s yes or what’s no, except to just keep an eye on the pile and its various smells and make sure things are getting nice and crumbly before you add it to your vegetable bed.

Margaret: Because my inclination, when someone says, “Oh, I have this big pile of leaves,” or, “I have these leaves I just raked up from over there. Can I just to them into my vegetable beds?” I’m like, “I’d rather see you age them some more, and maybe even crumble them up some more.” Do you know what I mean?

Annie: Yeah.

Margaret: I wouldn’t turn in whole, especially oak leaves, what you were just saying. I mean, the chemistry aside [laughter], I just…  I don’t kind of want to try to start seeds and every other six inches is an oak leaf sticking up. You know what I mean?

Annie: Yeah.

Margaret: So I’m more of have a leaves-only pile with some extra leaves that I don’t leave on the ground, and maybe run it over with the mower before the fall. And let it crumble little. Let it become leaf mold. I’d rather put that in.

Annie: Yeah. I agree with you. And I think if you were to think about this as just sort of walk through what might happen next steps-wise, if you take leaf litter and just put it around your vegetables, it’s just going to stay there.

The decomposers that work on that material aren’t necessarily going to be in your vegetable garden at all. If I think about, where do you see pill bugs? You see pill bugs under leaf litter in forest near woody tissue. You don’t necessarily always see pill bugs wandering around your tomato patch, so-

Margaret: In the baking sun, no. In a raised bed or something, no.

Annie: Yeah. They’re closely related to lobsters. They need water. So I would let the decomposition happen in its own space with the right party attendees. And then when that party seems done, you can take that soil and put it around your vegetables, which are an entirely different growing environment, you know?

Margaret: Right. I mean, I even got a question the other day from someone who wanted to know about using straw as an amendment, turning straw into her vegetable soil. And I was like, “What?” It just didn’t… I use it as mulch occasionally, but… I mean, again, I’d rather have material that was, as you were just describing earlier, composted and so forth first, aged first. [Annie, above; photo by Jackie Snow.]

Annie: Yeah.

Margaret: Yeah. At the Edible Academy at NYBG, are you doing no-till or are you tilling? Or what’s going on with that?

Annie: So I’ve worked here since 2005. And as long as I’ve worked here, we are very much of the top-dressing-only methodology. It’s very rare that we’ve needed to aerate the soil.

And at this point, I would say the part of the site on which we grow vegetables, it’s just compost top to bottom. I mean, we’re constantly adding material.

And yes, just to say, the compost we get comes from organic material that’s been gathered all over the New York Botanical Garden. If you’ve ever visited our campus, that’s 250 acres of living plants. We’re using composts that’s derived from grass clippings, those oak leaves we keep talking about, vegetable scraps. It’s not just our internal material. So it’s beautiful, rich, very diverse soil.

And we do add amendments, but what I’ll say about amendments is… I’ll give you an example. We use something like a ground soybean meal. We might use something like a dry bat guano or a fish emulsion. These are all also, in their own way, organic material. It’s all carbon-based natural stuff.

And the reason it works is because we’re adding it to a soil that’s full of living microbes, because we’re adding compost—compost isn’t just passive dirt, as it were. It’s not just sand, silt, and clay and organic matter content. Organic matter content refers to this actual cycle of living creatures actively decomposing. So when we add something like soybean meal to our soil, it is itself then being decomposed, and then the nitrogen in it is being rendered accessible to the plants.

So, that’s something really important. And I wonder, to circle back on what sounds like you’re astonishing garden, I think part of its success and why you’re able to just keep adding compost, is because you’re adding living creatures to your soil, in addition to the mineral nutrients and the sand, silt, clay, etc. that goes in. So that’s really what people are striving for. You can reduce the amount of additional ancillary amendments, if you’re starting to create a really healthy hospitable ecosystem by continuing to add compost.

Margaret: Right. I want to spend the rest of the time, or a lot of it, talking about composting, because we’ve hinted at it a few times now. You have a really great depth of expertise in this subject. And from all that knowledge and from listening to students and people at the Edible Academy and people at lectures that you’ve given and so forth, all of your teaching, what are the things that you want to tell people are the sort of biggest wins, the things that they could tweak, do differently, be more observant about? Do you know what I mean?

Is it keeping the pile a little bit moist? Or is it turning more often? I don’t know. What are the big hits, do you think, that you notice that people don’t understand could really improve their composting systems?

Annie: Yeah. Honestly, the top and maybe only item is observation and faith that more than you think you do, if you’re out looking around taking note of decomposition happening in the world. It’s a very natural process that happens everywhere that there are living things. And so a lot of the places where I see people come up with a question, it’s typically about some of those trickier items, like coffee grounds or egg shells, or, “Can I compost cheese?”

And for whatever reason, those seem very mysterious. But it’s just faith that in time, everything will decompose. So that coffee ground that you’re wondering like, “Why is it still there?” It’s a hard, tough ligneous piece of plant tissue. It’s going to take a while.

Again, leaning into this you know more than you think you do, I’m sure almost everyone knows good versus bad smells intuitively. The nose hairs in our nostrils wrinkle when we smell something that’s not going well. And I think, for any time you’ve come up to your compost pile and said, “Oh, I don’t know if it’s ready,” you’ll smell it. I mean, I really trust that you know how to smell what good healthy soil material smells like and then what it smells like when it’s bad.

Likewise, I think about this a lot when I go for walks in swamps, bogs, forests, open landscapes, prairies. These all have really different terroir smells. And that has so much to do with the different ways in which decomposers interact with the plant tissue in that space.

So I just often ask people to take a step back, relax, trust that you know more than you think you do. And then even when you’re not actively standing in front of your compost pile, be aware of the rest of the world around you when you’re going out for a hike or walk, and try and see if you can spot where this is happening naturally and how it’s working and what clues you can take from that to apply to your own pile.

Margaret: Right. Because I mean, you mentioned the coffee grounds, and you’re right, that and eggshells, and there’s a bunch of things that, over and over again I get the question, “Can I use this? Can I use that?” Because look, in the internet age, a lot of these things have been touted here or there on social media and so forth as, “Oh, this is the best thing for this. Or this can prevent this problem.”

And it’s like, you know what, guys? Just anything that promises to be the be-all-end-all, just forget about it [laughter], and do what you said, go in the forest and watch how the forest is caring for itself. Right?

Annie: Yeah, exactly.

Margaret: But coffee grounds or anything, any one thing, I don’t want to put a giant mass of any one thing sort of isolated within my heap. Do you know what I mean? I want a mixture. I want a blend of things, so the work can happen. I don’t want to give those invisible detritivores and other helper creatures that are even smaller, like you said the pill bugs [below; Wikipedia photo], but even almost invisible…well, invisible ones.

Annie: Microbes, yeah.

Margaret: Yeah. I don’t want to give them three weeks of coffee grounds in a big dump. Do you know what I mean?

Annie: Yeah. And I mean, the thing is you can, but then you’re only going to get the micro-population that really enjoys eating coffee grounds, and that’s not going to do you much good. No, so it is going to take a while.

I think the funny but relatable thing is we, as humans, have fantastic teeth, right? Among the decomposers of the world, we have some of the best. We’re better at biting things than pill bugs are. So if you can’t bite through it, chewing a coffee ground is hard. Imagine how difficult that’s going to be for a bacteria that’s working solely on acids, or on a pill bug that is sort of clomping around like a lobster, like I said.

So I think at the end of the day, so much of it just has to do with what logically makes sense to you? And I think a mixed pile is the perfect way to answer that, because even if you don’t understand it exactly, it’s not the perfect recipe, it’s going to, generally speaking, broaden the audience of microbes and decomposers that are at work. And that will help facilitate a more thermophilic, hotter pile that will continue to keep this party go for all of the microbes that rely on those temperatures to do excellent decomposition work.

Margaret: I love the idea of keeping the party going. That’s good. That sounds very positive. Well, Annie Novak, from the Edible Academy at the New York Botanical Garden, I’m so glad to speak to you and also that you’re going to be coming to the area, as I said, as part of The Workshop Experience Weekend, May 7th to 8th.

You’ll be here May 7th doing your bird migration class and your soil and composting class. And I’m looking forward to seeing you in person and hopefully welcoming you to the garden, if you have time to stop by. So thanks very much for making time today.

Annie: Oh, I appreciate it so much, Margaret. Thanks for standing for compost. And it’s lovely to chat with you always.

more about may 7-8 garden events + other workshops

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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the April 4, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify

  1. Tibs says:

    I feel better about my informal composting method now. And the fact that my raised beds are 100% compost. Always read that was a bad thing to do, as it was too rich. But if the NY botanical garden does it, its gotta be ok.

  2. Karen Young says:

    Love the compost info for my yard in VA but visiting my sis in AZ and debris seems to take forever to decompose. Suggestions?

  3. Becky Okrent says:

    But, but, but
    what if one’s pile is cool? I have sandy soil on the Cape and no lawn, so grass clippings which easily heat things up are not available, just garden waste, kitchen scraps and shredded oak leaves. Also too many pine needles mixed in.
    I have wonderfully wormy compost in a barrel but my pile is slow to excruciating.
    Also wondering about the electric kitchen composter being advertised. Tempting but not conducive to living things I’m supposing. And do worms survive a very hot compost?

  4. Kelly says:

    Smh thinking about the work and care that goes into creating a compost pile and then having the entire batch ruined because of a diseased plant. I’m sticking to healthy plants only to be safe!

  5. Emily Nammacher says:

    Margaret – I have your signed book and hope you don’t mind my question. A bluebird couple nests in my box several seasons now and yet 17 eggs haven’t hatched. I’ve contacted several organizations to no avail in finding out why. One site about bird houses mentioned infertile eggs and if so, is my garden at fault? . Would Annie Novak be a source to consult? If so, how to contact her?

    I enjoy your articles and have shared with fellow gardeners. One of these years I hope to get up to your weekend for gardening expertise!

    Thank you –

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